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Streetscapes of Yubari

In 1888, the city of Yubari was founded on Japans’ northernmost island, Hokkaido, in order to exploit the vast the coal reserves beneath the Sorachi Subprefecture.

Once a jewel in the crown of coal mining Japan, Yubari has undergone a dramatic decline from a coal mining powerhouse, to a shell of its former self, becoming bankrupt and experiencing a population decline of over 90%.

At the peak of coal production in Yubari, twenty-four coal mines were in operation, largely owned by the companies Mitsubishi & Hokutan. Yubari had built its reliance upon supplying coal to Japanese power stations and coking coal for the Muroran steelworks.

Around the 1950’s & 60’s, Japan began shifting its reliance from coal to oil as a means of fueling the country’s power stations. This technological shift would bring about the beginning of Yubari’s decline.

At it’s peak, the population of Yubari had reached around 120,000. By 1980 that number had fallen to just over 40,000.

In 1981, a methane gas explosion in Hokutan New Mine killed 93 miners, the mine itself being only 6 years old and the Hokutan subsidiary that ran the mine going into bankruptcy two months later.

1985, another massive methane gas explosion at the Mitsubishi Minami Oyubari Mine claimed the lives of 62 miners, forcing its closure in 1990. The mine was seen by Yubari as the last hope for survival its coal mining industry, and with this tragic event, came the end to the century-old industry that Yubari had built itself upon.

Today, the population of Yubari sits at around 9000. The median age is roughly 60 and this is projected to reach 65 by 2020. It’s almost like a magnified reflection of the demographic problems facing Japan as a whole. High levels of public debt with an ageing and shrinking population, only on a much more dramatic scale.

In an attempt to adapt to the new challenges facing the city, Yubari borrowed large sums of money to reinvent itself through tourism and melons (which Yubari is also famous for). Even on the Shinkansen from Hokkaido to central Japan, I noticed that the melon sweets in the refreshments trolley were proudly labelled as having come from Yubari.

So began a series of failed investments intended to relieve the financial apocalypse facing the Yubari but instead, hastening its demise.

The construction of attractions such as melon castle, a melon liquor distilling facility aimed at attracting tourists now sits abandoned on the foothills overlooking Yubari.

A ‘coal mining themed amusement park’ was also built, Now in an advanced state of decay. Most of the attractions have been removed and scrapped. What remains has either been boarded up, crushed by snow, or is in a state of complete disrepair.

Other decisions which seemed to make no economic sense, such as building a road to the former Shimizusawa School with the sole purpose of demolishing it… And then not demolishing the school due to lack of funds, probably did nothing to help either.

The day of reckoning for Yubari came in 2007, when the city declared bankruptcy with debts totalling more than ¥35.3 billion ($447 million AUD).

An 18 year financial reconstruction plan was then established.

Public services were cut to the bone. The public workforce of 3000 was halved. 6 schools were combined into 1. The hospital was downgraded to a clinic. Snow clearing was cut back and public toilets were closed.

The fate of Yubari now lies in the hands of an unlikely elected mayor, Naomachi Suzuki, the youngest mayor in the country tasked with leading Japans’ most elderly city out of the red against all the odds.

Suzuki was elected at the age of 30 in 2012. He then visited 5000 of the cities 6000 households in order to better understand what the needs of it’s residents are.

He is one of, if not the lowest paid elected official in Japan, having given up a ¥2 Million ($25,000 AUD) pay cut and left his previous role as a bureaucrat in the Tokyo Prefecture in the hope of saving Yubari. I’m not sure whether this is even possible but it’s certainly admirable and it will be interesting to see if he can achieve what he has set out to do.

The Australian mining environment is currently in transition away from its biggest boom since the gold rush of the 1800’s undergoing, a shift towards more efficient or renewable energy sources, and with lowering commodity prices namely, iron ore, thermal coal and metallurgical coal putting pressure on mining operations across the country. Many are ceasing altogether as the minerals become uneconomical to extract.

I can’t help but wonder if there are parallels to be drawn and maybe even lessons learned from what is has happened in Yubari.